The Poetry of Maintenance Manuals

Years ago, I started my writing-for-pay career as a technical copywriter, delving into something I knew nothing about—an industrial line of pumps for the waste treatment, oil and gas, and food industries. It might not sound very glamorous, but to a twenty-something it was a pretty good gig. During the job interview, which included a tour of the manufacturing plant, I commented on the way the pump functioned, innocently using the word sheer, not knowing at the time that the word shear is technically applicable in the spec’ing of this product for an application. As it turned out, it was a job-clinching fluke. Within days, I was in the lab working with engineers to disassemble and reassemble the product, step by step, taking notes and learning a new vocabulary. I was also leaning to do what I now do as a poet—to say the most in the fewest words, like these, for example, from one of the manuals:

When replacing packing, insert two rings on the shaft, the lantern ring, and then, four more rings. This will allow the lantern ring to line up with the grease fitting.

Today, some of the very manuals I worked on, and their close relatives, are still in use and can be found on the company’s website not because the writing is so good that it has withstood the test of time, but rather, because the product is so solid and elegant in its design and function that it is still being manufactured and used in same way it was back then—to move viscous or lumpy material from point A to point B—material like sewage, oil sludge, and cherry pie filling. There is little need for new manuals.

My stint as a copywriter with an industrial goods manufacturer provided me two critical take-aways. First, it taught me that you can pack meaning into a few words by using just the right words, strategically placed. On the website for The Antioch Review, Robert Fogarty, editor, has written that the journal has a continuing commitment to publish the best words in the best order, which, by the way, is precisely the goal of a good maintenance manual. I often think of Fogarty’s words as I write poetry.

Second, I leaned through this job, how much I love language. Even today, I find myself thinking about the fact that ketchup is a  thixotropic fluid, meaning that it starts out moving slowly. Shear force, generated by the initial movement, then causes it to begin to flow more quickly creating a unique pumping problem. Further, I found the word borrowing used in this industry, fascinating. Words like lantern ring, stuffing box, shaft collar, and packing gland—terms that were used every day by the company’s sales and engineering staffs—still dance around in this logophile’s ears some thirty years later, and even work themselves into the occasional poem.

While maintenance manuals are not literary documents by any stretch, the connection is an interesting one in that they both share the attributes of language beauty and economy. There is a critical element of “crafting” that goes into writing good poetry just as a kind of crafting goes into writing down instructions for someone else to follow. (We’ve all experienced manuals in which good crafting was clearly not a consideration.) Besides paying the bills, writing manuals proved to be a useful writing exercise.

Craft in poetry can be its most elusive aspect. It can be difficult to teach, difficult to explain, and even more difficult to get right. Yet, I suggest good crafting separates poetry we like from poetry that does not appeal quite as much. After an initial reading of a particularly pleasing poem, my first thought is:  How did the poet do that?  Good poetry craft is manifested as clearly evident—or rather, subtly evident—intentionality with regard to word choice, structure, rhythm, disjunction, coding, line breaks, title, visual appearance, etc.

In previous posts I have written about poets who write with the kind of attention to craft that appeals to me, and that I use as models—Larry Levis, John Siddique, Diane Wakoski, Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody, James Dickey, Jamey Dunham, and others. I once heard C.K. Williams say that he picks a specific poet and reads everything they have written, spending time with their work. This is his way of going to the lab and taking the pump apart. How else can you figure out how the thing works.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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4 Responses to The Poetry of Maintenance Manuals

  1. What a great post. I connect with wanting to know how things work (things, or poems!) and with falling in love with terminology. I loved learning about your work life.

    • Grace Curtis says:

      Kathleen, Thank you so much for your gracious comment. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I like it that you too like the terminology. Isn’t it interesting how even the language of business or manufacturing or, of anthing, really can be beautiful and poetic! I have worked in health care for the past several years and I find words like scalpel, or influenza to be wonderful also.

  2. What a great post, Grace. As a logophile myself, I’ve always enjoyed obscure terminology, and the fact that industries I’ve never heard of or considered have their own languages. Thanks for your insights on craft, and the glimpse of your early writing/working years!

    • Grace Curtis says:

      Thank you for commenting. As I was writing this, it brought back so many thoughts about the interesting language we used in that environment. You must encounter that in writing about food–I.e., that it too has it’s own vocabulary?

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